I was recently inspired by The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, an ambitious book by Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot. Why? It reminded me why I devote my energies to supporting the study of the liberal arts within the Catholic higher education sector here in the United States of America.
In the wake of the Age of Enlightenment, humanity’s observations about the natural and social worlds created theories regarding democracy, capitalism, socialism, and evolution that have been applied over the last three hundred years in nearly every corner of the globe. The Shape reacquaints us with these theories by applying a core tenet of a liberal arts education: that the original texts of transformative works need to be revisited to better understand the influence they ultimately had on humanity.
“The invisible hand,” “dialectical materialism,” and “natural selection.” Smith, Marx, and Darwin. Influential ideas, but each is only one component of a theory that changed the world. The Shape takes us back to school in a sense, but within the context of understanding the complex state humanity finds itself in the twenty-first century.
Adam Smith’s economic theory continues to be co-opted by political, business, and technological leaders when they seize on the relationship between self-interest, free markets, incentives and economic growth. True, the “invisible hand” of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations spoke to the power of the multitudes as they operated within free markets. In The Shape, however, Smith’s often-overlooked thoughts about the dangers of the concentration of capital within the free market system are examined by Montgomery and Chirot. We see how the “invisible hand” often contributes to the extreme economic stratification that ultimately destroys the financial ecosystems of many countries. For those of us in Catholic higher education, we are reminded of our commitment to the dignity of the person within a world clamoring for free markets. History is very clear: unfettered capitalism can create human suffering in many forms.
The Shape explores how Marx’s social and political theory, beginning with The Communist Manifesto, thrived on the suffering caused by capitalism’s volatility. The authors help us understand Marxist theory within the context of the Industrial Age, but they also chronicle how twentieth century leaders like Stalin and Mao drove it off a cliff with their cults of personality, along with tens of millions of lives as collateral damage.
Ultimately, all of humanity came to its knees during the Cold War, not knowing if it would survive a final atomic conflict between communism and capitalism (and democracy). Yes, Marxist ideas have been horribly twisted by authoritarian and fascist states, but history reminds us that Marxism often follows capitalism’s exploitation of the poor and the powerless.
We have all studied Darwin’s The Origin of Species at some point in our education. But how often do we follow Origin’s storylines into the twentieth century where genocidal leaders cherry-picked Darwin’s theory of evolution to support ethnic cleansing? Near the end of The Shape, after tying the great ideas to many of humanity’s darker moments, the authors soberly observe: “Combining Darwin’s and the entire Enlightenment's scientific objectivity and rationalism with a humane philosophy that gives broader meaning to human life remains a work in progress that is very far from being completed.”
Our work in Catholic higher education calls upon us to connect the dots of major social theoretical constructs, human behavior, ethics, and our faith. The Shape’s authors help us appreciate what might be Darwin’s biggest contribution to humanity: the idea that things don’t just change, they evolve. Just like the natural world, jostled by disruptions and environmental pressures, humanity evolves. What greater goal for a Catholic liberal arts education then to consider the question: What are we evolving toward?
Our work is informed by the book’s fourth great idea, democracy, which the authors explore through the written works of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. These Founding Fathers loom large as the originators of two familiar archetypes of American democracy. We learned in school that they were often at odds, but “angry as they were, bitter as they could be, their shared love of liberty and their understanding that whether one believed in active or relatively inactive central government, excessive centralization of power was an evil of brutal consequence made it possible for comprises to emerge.” Checks and balances are needed, whether it is in trade, education, or governing, to protect humanity.
Do our business students discuss Adam Smith when they study the 1987 or 2008 economic crashes? Do our science students follow the through-line from Darwin through the Nazi concentration camps? Do our history students understand how many of Marx’s benign thoughts were twisted by leaders in the Caribbean, South America, Russia, and the East?
As liberal arts institutions, we study the arts and sciences so we know what it means to be human. When we ground the study of humanities within our Catholic educational traditions we promote the idea of citizenry within a broader context of character formation and faith. How is this possible? We can turn to the Rule of Saint Benedict:
“The Rule is permeated with a sacramental view of the world. God is believed to be manifested in finite things and present in the world, in the human family, and in events unfolding in history. There is no marked division between the sacred and the profane, between the holy and the material. Every encounter with the physical world, with persons, and with situations can be an occasion for hearing God's voice.” (osb.org)
We know that our students make daily choices, that their character is continually in formation, and that they are working towards a better life, both for themselves and others. Studying in academic programs that reflect the interdisciplinary approach that The Shape employs prepares them for lives of deeper meaning, for they are part of a society that should be evolving to a higher level of human dignity.
When we study the life of Thomas Jefferson, we are usually reminded about his passion for the separation of church and state, but there was one Jefferson story that The Shape brought to my attention that I would like to share here:
“Using a razor, he (Jefferson) physically cut and pasted together those parts of the New Testament he felt were true to Jesus’s actual words. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, as he titled his creation, makes no mention of angels, miracles, the resurrection, or even Jesus’s divinity. It begins with the birth of its hero and ends with his death, deleting all that is supernatural. The book, as Jefferson wrote to John Adams, provides ‘the most sublime and relevant code of morals which has ever been offered to man.’”
Ours is noble work, is it not?
Dr. Michael S. Brophy